ROSEVILLE — Nevada County homicide suspect Patricia Lee Thomas pleaded no contest to felony child endangerment in Placer County Monday morning. Thomas faced the murder charge in connection with the 1970 death of her 4-year-old daughter, who was found drowned in the bathtub of their Auburn home.
A preliminary hearing into the evidence against Thomas was set to start in Placer County Superior Court and had been expected to last two days.
But instead, Thomas opted to take a plea agreement that will net her five years formal probation and one year in jail.
She already has served 18 months on home detention and faces no additional time; her ankle monitor was removed later Monday.
Thomas, who was accompanied to court by a number of friends and family members, including her husband, entered a no-contest plea pursuant to People v. West, meaning she did not admit her guilt.
Placer County Deputy District Attorney Jeff Wood cited an Auburn police report that alleged that Thomas hit her daughter’s head on the faucet and left her in the water, leading to her subsequent drowning.
But defense attorney Thomas Leupp did not stipulate to that version of events.
“She did leave her unattended for a period of time, and Cynthia did die from drowning,” Leupp said.
Thomas, 66 at the time, was arrested in January 2012 and charged with murder in the May 25, 1970, death of 4-year-old Cindy. The girl’s death was initially reported as a bathtub drowning to Auburn Police; information obtained from Thomas’ elder daughter, Wendy Howell Peck, initiated the reopening of the investigation.
Peck told investigators she walked into the bathroom and saw her mother holding Cindy’s legs in the air in the tub.
In a conversation that was secretly recorded by investigators, Thomas allegedly told Peck that she “bumped Cindy’s head on the faucet and that Cindy became unconscious, and she left her there to drown.”
During earlier court proceedings, Leupp reportedly said that Peck suffers from dementia, while Wood said she has post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing the drowning.
“This is a crime that occurred 43 years ago,” Wood said Monday. “Obviously, that presents problems of proof. We did believe we had sufficient evidence for the purpose of (the preliminary hearing).”
Wood added, however, that there would have been some difficulty in proving the murder charge should the case have gone to trial.
“I think the resolution is fair and equitable to both parties,” he said.
“Neither Patricia nor her husband could physically, mentally or emotionally endure a difficult preliminary hearing and trial,” Leupp said. “Patricia has serious health problems, including the fact that she has had a lung transplant and wears a pacemaker … The family is very pleased that Patricia and her husband, Harry, can now get on with their lives.”
The age of the alleged crime posed some legal difficulties because the statute of limitations would have expired on child endangerment but not murder.
“The statute of limitations … would bar prosecution for that particular offense — the child endangerment — after this many years,” Leupp said. “It does not bar prosecuting someone for murder.”
To circumvent that, all sides had to agree to the resolution, Leupp added.
Thomas’ sentencing was set for Sept. 30 in Roseville.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.
“This is a crime that occurred 43 years ago. Obviously, that presents problems of proof.”
Placer County deputy district attorney